Fears, Lies, But No Videotape

Jacob's death provokes the latent fear in Joseph's brothers that Joseph bears a grudge against them and the desire to make peace with him.

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"When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us!" What did they see that made them afraid? As they were returning from burying their father, they saw that Joseph turned off the road and went to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him. Upon seeing this, they said, "He still bears a grudge in his heart. Now that our father is dead, he will make his hatred of us felt." But in fact, Joseph's motive was a pious one: He wanted to utter a blessing for the miracle wrought for him in that place. (Tanchuma, Va-y'chi 17)

Once two monks were traveling together when they came upon a woman afraid to cross a rushing river. Despite their vows not to look at or touch women, one of the monks lifted her up and carried her to the other side of the stream. He set her down, and the two monks continued along the road. After six hours of silence, his companion could no longer contain his anger. "How could you break our vows and carry that woman?" he asked. The first monk replied, "I put her down six hours ago, but I see that you are still carrying her!" (a Zen tale)

"Your father left this instruction." They modified the words of Jacob in this matter in the interest of peace. For Jacob did not instruct thus, since Joseph was not suspect in his eyes. (Rashi on Genesis 50:16)

Your Guide

How is the Zen tale a reflection of the brothers' state of mind?

Did the brothers have reason to concoct a message to Joseph from their deceased father?

Have you ever been in a situation in which telling a lie was a preamble to telling the absolute truth?

On what basis do the Rabbis justify the brothers' action? Do you agree with their interpretations?

Do you agree with Rashi's comment on Genesis 50:16 that sh'lom bayit is the most important lesson gleaned from these verses?

How can you apply this lesson to your own life?

D'var Torah

We know from when the brothers first met with Joseph that Joseph was indeed accessible. The fact that the brothers chose to send a message to Joseph after Jacob died shows just how fearful they were of their brother. They did have reason to be afraid: After all, they had thrown him into the pit, and for twenty years they felt that they were responsible for his presumed death.

Like the monk in the Zen tale above, we often find it hard to let go of grudges, and consequently they remain with us for a lifetime. The brothers have carried the heavy burden of guilt for twenty years. Now that their father, Jacob, has died, they fear that Joseph will take vengeance against them.

The Rabbis refute this assumption, explaining that "Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him" because he was saddened by the brothers' inability to see that what happened at the pit twenty years earlier was bashert, designed by God and thus meant to be. The brothers were unable to move on with their lives: They were slaves to a terrible memory they believed that Joseph shared. The author of this story had a mature understanding of human psychology almost 3,000 years before Freud!

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Rabbi Ira Korinow

Rabbi Ira Korinow is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El, Haverhill, Mass.